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24.01.14 Bain (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Hildegard of Bingen

24.01.14 Bain (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Hildegard of Bingen

In her introduction, editor Jennifer Bain acknowledges head-on the contentious question of whether a companion to Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179), the famous female writer of Latin visions, is still necessary. Secondary literature on the visionary of the Rhine abounds, and her appeal continues to grow. Freshly authored and forthcoming studies, editions, and translations provide excellent and stimulating studies on her context, life, thought, and writings. There was even a relatively recent Brill companion published in 2014. [1] Bain was evidently anticipating the thoughts of some of her potential readers. This reviewer, however, was quite convinced by the book’s end that any reservations toward its relevance can be set aside.

That not one but two important--and necessary--companions were written within the same decade is above all Hildegard’s noteworthy achievement. The companion consists of three parts, titled “Life and Monastic Context,” “Writings and Reputation,” and “Music, Manuscripts, Illuminations, and Scribes.” In the final pages, we find a select bibliography, listing the most recent editions and translations, followed by additional resources for study, a list of selected manuscripts, and an index.

Michael Embach’s first chapter offers a critical examination of Hildegard’s biographical sources, which by medieval standards are relatively detailed and plentiful, yet not always consistent: in attempting to reconstruct her life course reliably, quite a few conflicts and gaps arise. Hildegard’s early life in particular remains obscure, with an insecure birth date, birthplace, family background, and education (maybe the Sponheims). We know that Hildegard was with Jutta at the enclosure attached to Disibodenberg from 1112 onwards. Embach goes on to trace Hildegard’s literary beginnings in the 1140s, her move to the Rupertsburg in 1150, and the start of her public career with the completion of Scivias in 1151. He further delves into the monastery’s expansion, the challenging foundation of a second cloister in Eibingen, the documentation of preaching tours, alleged miracles, her later years, posthumous popular worship, and the pursuit of canonization. Generally, Embach exemplifies meticulous historical-critical care. Only on page 22 does this reviewer find him a tad careless in stating that “Hildegard received another confirmation in the years 1147-1148 when Pope Eugene III visited Trier.” Whether such a papal confirmation was actually given at that time and what form it took is quite controversial; lack of reference to this scholarly debate is thus unfortunate.

Whereas Embach’s chapter condenses the entire course of Hildegard’s life to its remarkable, unusual, and (mostly) public milestones, Alison I. Beach’s next chapter decelerates the pace and instead paints in vivid detail the routine events of a single day in her alleged foundation of Eibingen (September 30) in all their unremarkable, ordinary, and private rhythm. Taking the Rule of St. Benedict’s eight liturgical hours, from Matins to Compline, as the backbone for the chapter, Beach reconstructs a day as it would have been experienced by a nun in Hildegard’s cloister, drawing in addition on customary sources that her communities may have known, such as that of Hirsau abbey. Beach vividly describes sensory experiences--what women religious saw, tasted, smelled, heard, said, and sang--while also exploring their daily manual labor, like needlework, book copying, and wine culture. Archaeological and bio-archaeological evidence occasionally supplement details too self-evident to put to parchment (and therefore forgotten over the course of time), all in order to summon to life the daily, pragmatic reality of the world from which Hildegard of Bingen’s works emerged.

Lori Kruckenberg’s chapter 3 seeks to remediate the oft-repeated grievance of the difficulty in reconstructing the knowledge profile of a writer who continually feigns her unlearnedness, keeps her source texts to herself, and whose house transmitted no book inventories or library records. Kruckenberg supplements the little information we have on Hildegard’s background with evidence on the standards, expectations, and contexts for literacy and learning that were common for women religious in medieval Germany. She does so from three vantage points, namely normative monastic statutes and conciliar decrees; hagiographical exemplary texts aimed at edification; and an exploration of the extant evidence of libraries, books, and texts. Her multifaceted understanding of the educational and cultural milieu of women religious is admirable, and her response to an empirical problem quite adequate. While Kruckenberg demonstrates a nuanced approach in her criticism of the source material and general survey of various religious lifestyles, a more focused examination of Hildegard’s immediate, contemporary German context might have been more practical. In attempting to cover a broad time frame--from the ninth to the fifteenth centuries--within the confines of such a short contribution, the chapter risks making broad generalizations.

The first chapter of Part II, that of James Ginther, falls short of expectations. Ginther argues that foundational texts, institutional settings, and intended audience are the three coordinates that shape theological discourse, and that Hildegard’s similar use of these puts her on par with theologians at nascent universities. He also announces his intention to illustrate Hildegard’s theological program by examining the topics of marriage and creation. Although Ginther roughly follows this proposed structure, the text that ensues is rather convoluted. Unannounced and basing himself on a rather problematic letter to her last secretary, Guibert of Gembloux (1124-1213), which he heralds as the best example of Hildegard’s theology, Ginther ventures into the importance Hildegard attached to humilitas (89). The next subsection contains speculative assertions concerning Hildegard’s knowledge of classical rhetorics, seemingly based only on Ginther’s observation that she relied on memory and used ekphrasis (91). He lingers on Hildegard’s exclusive recruitment from the nobility for a disproportionally long time, yet fails to explain how that recruitment strategy related to her theological viewpoints on marriage, let alone theology itself. Beginning a new section, Ginther consequently plucks a number of stray passages from Scivias and Liber vitae meritorum that relate to marriage and chastity, arguing their potential to reveal Hildegard’s theological program (although the actual theological questions at stake are nowhere formulated). The chapter ends by emphasizing the significance of creation in the Liber divinorum operum. All in all, this chapter’s argument is unclear, its structure incoherent, and its evidence flimsy and anecdotal. There is also a frustrating carelessness in phrasing. In the same sentence Hildegard is called a “mystical theologian” and her visions described as “rapturous” (86); neither descriptor, I believe, would Ginther deem accurate on second thought.

Christopher D. Fletcher’s chapter delves into Hildegard of Bingen’s epistolarium, one of the largest from the twelfth-century golden age of epistolary writing and her most popularly transmitted text. Unlike the prevalent rhetorical-Ciceronian models of the time, the letters aligned more closely with Hildegard’s visionary poetics. This uniqueness contributed to their popularity. Furthermore, the personalized visionary contents of the letters were likely to have had a far more direct and immediate effect than her doctrinal, abstract treatises (120-21). The letters reveal wide geographical and social contours, extending, for example, to Paris, Rome, Denmark, and Jerusalem, with recipients spanning from anonymous laymen to the pope. Fletcher also addresses issues of forgery and inauthenticity in the letters’ scholarship, highlighting the extensive editing process aided by Hildegard’s secretaries, Volmar and Guibert. While an excellent chapter overall, it commits a minor error on page 115 in confusing Ep. 4 with Spuria I in Van Acker’s edition. [2] Both are found transmitted as written by Pope Eugene III, but it is Spuria I that heads the Riesencodex, and which corresponds to the “invention [...] approving Hildegard’s visionary work” to which Fletcher refers. Ep. 4’s authenticity has not been contested to my knowledge, and in fact it dodges Hildegard’s request for papal authorization rather than approving it.

Peter V. Loewen’s chapter begins from Hildegard’s didactic role as a preacher to focus on the “intratextual hermeneutics” (adopted from Kienzle [3]) of viriditas, or “greenness,” central to her theology. A database search in the Patrologia Latina shows that Hildegard is responsible for nearly a quarter of all its attested uses in the Latin Middle Ages. Although rooted in patristic origins, Hildegard’s use and integration of it in her more dramatic and visionary texts, resonating with her own exegetical voice, is far from derivative. Viriditas, often opposing ariditas, denotes vigorous belief and the earth’s vital essence. Examining Hildegard’s position in the tradition of “spiritual gardening,” Loewen traces her adaptation ofviriditas, especially Gregory the Great’s viriditas mentis and viriditas interioris. Having focused on more curious instances of greenness (an unexpected association with Lucifer) and Hildegard’s association of greenness with virginity, Loewen concludes that Hildegard, in her innovative adaptation of viriditas, much like her female Virtues in the Ordo virtutum, represents a new feminine order (“branches”) of the patriarchal tradition (the “roots”).

Faith Wallis treats Hildegard’s two natural-scientific and medical works, currently known as Physica and Causae et curae (C&C). Both still pose questions of transmission and redaction history, interdependence, and authenticity. Other than Hildegard’s other works and manuscripts, which are relatively easy to trace back to the Riesencodex or to a Rupertsberg original, Physica and C&C survive in manuscripts from the thirteenth century at the earliest. Scholars rely on the testimony of Cistercian prior Gebeno of Eberbach (fl. 1220), protagonist of Hayton’s chapter in this volume, that the treatises were effectively Hildegard’s, or were at least organized by the Rupertsberg. Wallis makes the argument that Hildegard’s legacy as a medic was not so much built up during her lifetime as crafted posthumously by her entourage. That does not mean that the treatises are inconsistent with Hildegard’s visionary identity; on the contrary. The natural-scientific register is no accidental break in style but a deliberate demonstration of polymathy. The chapter briefly dwells on textual parallels with the contemporary Salernitan medical school, but ever so often the question of influence is vexed by Hildegard’s taciturnity about her source texts. The chapter concludes by surveying the reception of Hildegard’s medical works, with their rediscovery by the Romantics in the nineteenth century, which in turn derailed into their twentieth-century commercialization, as most famously witnessed in the case of the Austrian physician Gottfried Hertzka (1913-1997).

In chapter 8, Magda Hayton discusses the pivotal role of the above-mentioned Gebeno in establishing Hildegard’s image as prophet of the end times. In around 1220, Gebeno compiled an anthology of Hildegard’s works, known as the Pentachronon, aiming to clarify her teachings amid the increasingly popular belief that the final age had begun. This anthology, containing three groups of excerpts (173), circulated widely in three major versions and gained significant popularity from the thirteenth to seventeenth centuries. Through the selection and reorganization of Hildegard’s texts, Gebeno reinforced her apocalyptic warnings, her advocacy for reform, and the need for a new theology of salvation history. For Hildegard, the evils of Christianity had to be eradicated both on the inside and outside of the Church. The ineffective clergy in office had to be taken on just as thoroughly as the onslaught of fanatic dissidents undermining them (e.g., the Cathars). That story, carrying in itself both reformist and conservative readings, turned out to have great universal appeal. Both anti-mendicants in the thirteenth century and Lutherans during the Counter-Reformation realized that the Hildegard of the Pentachronon was an opportune passepartout on which to project proper ideals of religious conservatism or renewal. On page 178, there is a typo in the end date of Henry IV’s reign, which should be 1105.

In chapter 9, Wendy Love Anderson focuses on the twelfth-century context of visionary activity, which became more frequent, more personal in content, directed toward a more diverse audience, and, controversially, more engaged with contemporary concerns. Anderson first presents Hildegard’s predecessors, ranging from Paul the Apostle and John of Patmos to Abbot Columba as described by Adomnán of Iona (c. 624-704). Similarly to those of contemporaries, such as Rupert of Deutz (1075-1129) and Joachim of Fiore (c. 1130/35-1201/02), Hildegard’s visions contained instructive and exegetical content. She self-authorized her visionary persona through a connection to the divine that she alone possessed. This privileged, person-bound (yet not quite “personal”) connection gradually gave way to the experience-based and unionizing mysticism of later followers and devotees. Anderson strikes a connection to the previous chapter by showing how the most enthusiastic among these were reformers, polemicists, and preachers, mostly interested in her apocalyptic visions. They also gave her visions new interpretations, arguing for instance that Hildegard predicted the Great Western Schism (1378-1417). Protestants admired her disdain for ecclesiastical corruption, while counter-reformist Catholics heralded her as the figurehead of authentic Christian orthodoxy. The impact (and idealization) of Hildegard has anything but waned, as witnessed by her canonization in 2012 and her lasting influence on spiritual feminists and ecological activists.

In the first chapter of Part III, editor Jennifer Bain focuses on Hildegard’s seventy-seven liturgical chants. Throughout, Bain justifiably underscores the--often overlooked--importance of music to Hildegard’s oeuvre. The chants are contained in two twelfth-century manuscripts, the Wiesbaden Riesencodex and the Dendermonde codex, whose liturgical use she explores. Their ordering rationale is that of the Common of Saints, dictated by saint ‘type’ (e.g., apostles, evangelists, martyrs, confessors, virgins) as opposed to by the church calendar. Considering that the chants were loose substitutes that had to be inserted in the office whenever the veneration of an apostle or martyr was required, Bain argues that this ordering design was preferred because it was more practical. The two compared codices also have one obvious difference: the Riesencodex uses two cycles as opposed to one, where the first cycle was probably used in the Office, and the second in Mass (218). Commendable are Bain’s tables containing the contents of both manuscripts, clarifying the organizational principles behind their design. Table 10.4 is also highly informative, indicating where twenty-nine of seventy-seven of Hildegard’s chants are inserted in Scivias, the Life of St. Rupert, and two letters. Bain underlines on a number of occasions (227-30) that, despite some idiosyncrasies, the chants do not depart as significantly from the plainchant tradition as scholarship tends to claim.

Alison Altstatt’s chapter explores how the Ordo virtutum, Hildegard’s sung Latin drama, exemplifies Benedictine values. Although the Ordo’s causa scribendi and performance context remain doubtful, she argues the occasion may have been the dedication of Rupertsberg in 1152, or perhaps the Consecration of Virgins. First, she briefly analyzes its music and irregular prose and discusses predecessors of liturgical performances (dialogues or didactic plays), such as the tenth-century Visitatio sepulchri or the hagiographical plays of Hrotsvitha of Gandersheim (c. 935-73). Although allegories feature as early as Prudentius’s fourth-century Psychomachia, Altstatt emphasizes Hildegard’s indebtedness to Benedictine monasticism in shaping them. Special mention is made of the heavenly ladder in the Rule (c. 7), which proves essential in understanding how the Ordo dramatizes its progression “through Humility to an effortless Love of Christ.” The Ordo, Altstatt continues, also needs to be understood with reference to contemporary convent liturgy in the diocese of Mainz: the Virtues were ritually invoked in the consecration of virgins before the nuns’ mystical union with God. Likewise, in weekly Sunday processions, responsories were sung while walking through the cloister buildings, where Virtues were allocated to specific spaces. Altstatt concludes that the Ordo, in describing the soul’s own harrowing and triumph over evil, drew on the language and imagery of the story of Christ’s ‘Harrowing of Hell’ as related in the apocryphal Gospel of Nicodemus.

Nathaniel M. Campbell explores the complementarity in meaning between text and image in Hildegard’s two illuminated manuscripts: the now-lost Wiesbaden copy of Scivias, preserved only in black-and-white photographs from the 1920s, and the Lucca Liber divinorum operum from c. 1220-30s. Campbell contrasts Wiesbaden and Lucca by stating that the disparity between text and image in the former is functional and facilitates a correct understanding of Hildegard’s teachings, whereas in the latter such complementarity is lacking. In Wiesbaden, the images are not mere visual reproductions of the visions, but provide deviant or new information with an exegetical and educational purpose, for example through depiction of traditional Christian iconography complementing Hildegard’s denser prose. Wiesbaden therefore could only have sprung from Hildegard’s mind, whereas Lucca could not have. Unfortunately, the reader is left at the mercy of Campbell’s assessments of what exactly “meaningful disparity” is, and must place great confidence in the latter’s estimation of how Hildegard conceived of the relationship between text and image. At this point in the argument, Campbell’s decision to relegate to a footnote the scholarly debate over whether Hildegard could have designed the Scivias illuminations is somewhat odd. [4]

In the final chapter, Margot Fassler offers an erudite overview of scribal activity and manuscript production of the Rupertsberg during Hildegard’s lifetime, contending that her role as overseer of an entire team of copyists is too often overlooked. Most of Hildegard’s manuscripts were produced in the last decades of her life with the purpose of commemorating her, and preserving her writings and reputation. Fassler first focusses on the Zwiefalten (Z) letter collection, one of the rare manuscript copies to present the first, earliest stage of Hildegard’s letter collection. Many copyists from various scriptoria (Disibodenberg, Rupertsberg, and Zwiefalten) were active in its redaction. Although all Disibodenberg and Rupertsberg scribes are anonymous, it is likely that the hand of Volmar is among them. Highlighting the similarities in hands throughout the years and emphasizing how quickly the Rupertsberg established a house style after the move from Disibodenberg, Fassler makes a case for continuity in scribal instruction between both houses. She also underscores that Hildegard stimulated her nuns to engage in both copying and theologically examining her writings, where the former informed the latter and vice versa. Fassler consequently zooms in on the copies of the visionary trilogy made from the late 1160s and 1170s, showing interrelationships and introducing one of the main scribes (Scribe A), who was involved in at least four manuscripts during this later timeframe. The chapter concludes with a detailed palaeographical overview of the Rupertsberg’s “house style.”



1. Stoudt, Debra, George Ferzoco, and Beverly Kienzle, eds, A Companion to Hildegard of Bingen (Leiden: Brill, 2014).

2. See Lieven Van Acker, ed., Hildegardis Bingensis Epistolarium, CCCM 91 (Turnhout: Brepols, 1991), 10 and CCCM 91B (Turnhout, Brepols, 2001), 173.

3. Kienzle, Beverly Mayne, Hildegard of Bingen and her Gospel Homilies (Turnhout: Brepols, 2009).

4. See note 21 on page 263, which references Meier and Saurma-Jeltsch but neither explains nor attempts to challenge their conclusions against the attribution.